Loyalty and politics
US presidential supporters offered online rewards.
There was always a fine line between what is acceptable campaigning in a political election, and what crosses the divide into bribery or coercion.
In America, where the presidential election is this year lasting nearly as long as the last period in office, John McCain’s campaign team are offering rewards for those who spread the word.
Supporters are being urged to “Spread John McCain’s official talking points around the web – and you could win valuable prizes!”
Supporters who join its new online effort will be forgiven for thinking they have by mistake logged into a site with a customer loyalty programme.
On McCain’s website, visitors are invited to “Spread the Word” about the presumptive Republican nominee by sending campaign-supplied comments to blogs and websites under the visitor’s screen name. The site offers sample comments (“John McCain has a comprehensive economic plan . . .”) and a list of dozens of suggested destinations, conveniently broken down into “conservative,” “liberal,” “moderate” and “other” categories. All the supporter has to do is cut and paste.
Activists and political operatives have used volunteers or paid staff to seed radio call-in shows or letters-to-the-editor pages for years, typically without disclosing the caller or letter writer’s connection to a candidate or cause.
This practice is known as AstroTurf messaging (after the fake grass). It looks like the real thing from a distance, but don’t examine it too closely.
McCain’s campaign has taken the same idea and given it an internet/loyalty era twist. It also has taken the concept one step further.
People who sign up for McCain’s program receive reward points each time they place a favorable comment on one of the listed websites (subject to verification by McCain’s webmasters). The points can be traded for prizes, such as books autographed by McCain, preferred seating at campaign events, even a ride with the candidate on his bus, known as the Straight Talk Express, according to campaign spokesman Brian Rogers.
“Anytime you’re getting supporters activated into online communities or taking other actions to spread the word, that’s a win,” Rogers says.
“Reward points” or other incentives for political work aren’t a new concept. The Republican National Committee started a rewards program for volunteer fundraisers several years ago. More recently, Barack Obama’s campaign has given small donors and volunteers the chance to win a lunch or dinner with the candidate. Obama’s campaign though, doesn’t have a comment programme similar to McCain’s.
Outside of America, and even more chillinghly, dissidents in China alleged earlier this year that the Chinese government pay Chinese citizens token sums for each favorable comment about government policies they post in chat rooms and on blogs.
Offering incentives to spread presidential campaign rhetoric online makes sense, says Michael Cornfield, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and an expert in political management online. “Now that social media have expanded citizen comment opportunities far beyond the old letter to the editor and talk show call-in, campaigns should take advantage,” he says.
But there are some warnings from Cornfield, who is an executive with a company that markets political-organizing software. He says McCain’s program has a couple of bugs.
The first, he says, is the lack of disclosure instructions to participants. To rise above AstroTurf – a practice quite rightly considered ethically dubious by many – Cornfield says participants should use their real names and identify themselves as part of a campaign participation program (as in, “I’m Mike Cornfield, and I’m part of the McCain Action Team”).
He also says “germaneness” is an issue: “Talking points are fine, but a comment should refer specifically to something that was said or written previously in the thread where it is intended to appear.”
Taking this into a general marketing context, if a marketer was going to encourage customers to post positive statements about a particular product, customers should be specific about it. For example, encouraging stories about particular pets (for a dog food product) in particular situations as opposed to comments saying how wonderful the product was.
In the political context, Zach Exley, who directed online organizing for John Kerry’s Democratic presidential campaign in 2004 says the practice won’t work. Both the Kerry campaign and the GOP’s national committee, he said, had underwhelming results when they offered incentives of various kinds to volunteers.
“This stuff never works,” Exley says. “People in politics aren’t motivated by points. That’s not what gets people to act. They’re motivated by genuinely caring about the issues.”
Indeed, he adds, some volunteers resent points and incentives because they think it demeans or devalues their work.
This might explain why some of the Web sites targeted by McCain’s program haven’t noticed much of a surge in pro-McCain comments.
It is to be hoped that British politicians don’t take up the points for comments practice. The thought of labour’s Gordon Brown or the conservative David Cameron trying to entice us to wax lyrical in return for a reward is just too awful to contemplate.